BBC’s The Serpent: Will Post-COVID Travel Be Safer Than That In The 70s?

Talia Krais

Crime TV dramas are at an all-time high during lockdown with the disturbing real-life story of psychopath Charles Sobhraj (Alain) in The Serpent topping the list. This display of seduction, disguise, murder, and theft characterises the darkness of the hippie trail during 1970s, alerting viewers to the dangers of travelling. But is travel now just as dangerous as it was back then? Should a traveller accept dinner and drinks with strangers?

The Hippie Trail was an alternative to the acquisition of silk and spices on the Silk Road, focusing on spiritual values: freedom, enlightenment, and inner peace – sometimes induced by experimentation with new drugs or exploring different types of religion. It became a rite of passage for countless Westerners who wanted to be colonised rather than take the role of the coloniser, as they felt suffocated by Western ideology. Many of those travelling believed the Hippie Trail to be part of the ‘more humane’ side of the world and freely accepted the hospitality of strangers which could sometimes lead to repercussions, as exposed in The Serpent.

will international travel be a safe escapism post the COVID era?

Whilst we have remained in our homes in lockdown, unable to move from place to place, we have been dreaming about travelling again and experiencing different cultures and societies. Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of the road map out of lockdown has now transformed this vision into more of a reality.

Putting to one side the impact of the pandemic on public health, will international travel be a safe escapism post the COVID era? Especially if we as travellers adopt the carefree ways of the 70s adventurers. As our renewed wanderlust kicks in, will we be just as accepting of the kindness of strangers as many of the travellers were? Or do we have more of a guard up especially after living through a period whereby close proximity to strangers or even friends was potentially dangerous.

As a result of the lack of tourism during the pandemic, the business of criminals preying on foreign travellers has naturally reduced. However, the rise of the tourism this summer promises may offer greater opportunities for criminals. The period setting of The Serpent (1970s) suggests the numerous ways Sobhraj was able to carry out murder, theft and false identity are not as operational in the modern day, reducing the risk for those travelling in some of the areas which were part of the Hippie Trail or in fact globally.

Going abroad now with no communication to those back home would raise red flags immediately, as contact is far easier and quicker

Sobhraj and his partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Monique) were able to continuously change their identity and play cat and mouse with the authorities, by swapping the photos on their victim’s passports for their own pictures. This aided their evasion of the authorities, as their frequent presentation of their passports at checkpoints and airports and meant that the victims were not assumed missing.

Before and during the 70s, technology was not advanced enough to detect a modified photo or a forged signature, whilst nowadays border officials use developed technology and databases to check that the passports used are legitimate. Therefore, Sobhraj’s murderous operations are less likely repeat themselves. This being said however, the consequences of losing a passport can still be damaging, as fraudsters can use this information to steal a traveller’s identity.

In order for Sobhraj to maintain his luxurious lifestyle, he resorted to jewellery theft as well as stealing thousands of dollars in traveller cheques from his victims, by forging their initials. Today, traveller’s cheques have been replaced by credit or debit cards which have transactional limits for contactless payments as well as larger payments secured by pin codes. Therefore, if they are stolen, the cards can be quickly cancelled or if the individual is unable to do this, not a huge amount of money can be taken.

There was also a lack of communication between those travelling on the Hippie Trail and their families back home, as there were no mobile phones and no internet. The only forms of exchange were through landlines, postcards and letters which meant contact was so infrequent, that family members would not be aware for months that those travelling were missing. Going abroad now with no communication to those back home would raise red flags immediately, as contact is far easier and quicker.

As travel and movement unlock, there are perhaps different risks to be wary of particularly those relating to public health. Fortunately, due to modern technology and speedy communication, psychopaths such as Charles Sobhraj are less likely to get away with their heinous behaviour.

Talia Krais

Featured Image courtesy of Wanaporn Yangsiri via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article trailer courtesy of  BBC Trailers via YouTube.

In article images courtesy of high_life_north via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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